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Madaster and the circular economy

The Madaster concept of tracking use of construction materials to allow their reuse at the point of decommissioning was introduced to delegates at the 12th Swiss Re Engineering Underwriting Forum.

Recycling buildings is nothing new. Stone and timber from crumbling Roman villas became medieval castles; redundant castle walls became seventeenth century townhouses. Recycling construction materials was the norm for our ancestors.

We have lost this mindset. A combination of cheaper building materials and more complex constructions now sees decommissioned buildings reduced to rubble, destined for landfill or motorway foundations.

This represents both a waste of resources; and a high carbon footprint required to produce virgin raw materials, such as steel and concrete. How long can we continue this linear waste route considering that resources on the planet are finite?


I had the pleasure of introducing Madaster at the recent 12th Engineering Underwriting Forum. The Madaster movement is ruled by the mantra "waste is material without identity." The first step in improving our reuse of buildings is to provide their composite materials with identity.

Madaster, short for "Material Cadaster" provides a digital identity for construction material at the point of building design. This information is stored in an online registry. It allows construction material used in buildings to be accessible for sale several decades into the future. In other words, it will permit the isolation of materials for reuse; possibly of even whole units.

Circular use building and insurance

A detailed knowledge of materials used in construction can considerably increase insurers' ability to assess property risk. If issues emerge around a new construction material, we can quickly model our exposures.

On the asset side, a detailed material inventory could mean the creation of a secondary future trading market in building materials, as it would influence the building's intrinsic value before demolition.

Most importantly, Madaster is an enabler of circular economy and its "cradle to cradle" principle. Construction materials have a significant carbon footprint; in Switzerland 80% of total waste comes from the construction industry. Considering this, a circular approach from the early design and planning stages to proper decommissioning, can ensure that the resources return to the "cradle" and not to the "grave"! Simply put, materials can be re-used instead of being discarded. Reducing CO2 output will help mitigate climate change risk. 

We must all be better stewards of our planet; recognise the circular use of raw materials; and seek to reduce risk, which includes our carbon profile. Effective insurance solutions can help manage risk; while helping deploy the Madaster scheme and contribute to sustainability.

Vincent Eckert is Head Internal Environmental Management, Swiss Re.  The 2019 Engineering Underwriting Forum (EUWF) addressed topics around "Infrastructure: from cradle to cradle." Now in its twelfth year, the EUWF is a leading industry forum for engineering underwriters across Europe.